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Fountains of Wayne

Exactly one year ago today, Jim Bowden executed a completely pointless trade, acquiring third-tier slugger Preston Wilson from the Colorado Rockies. The deal wasn't pointless because of what he gave up (Zach Day and J.J. Davis) necessarily; instead, it was pointless because it served no productive end. Bowden explained the deal as an attempt to acquire a player who could go one-for-four and occasionally homer. This was the first sign that, if the 2005 Washington Nationals were going to collapse, Bowden lacked both the resources and the insight to keep the team standing. He couldn't, and in the process he altered the composition of the team, in a sense triggering the end of the Rockin' RFK Nats from the first half of last season.

Exactly one year later, Bowden has in a different sense put to rest the longing for those first-half wonders to live; as with the Wilson trade, Bowden has altered the composition of the team, but this time he has done so to a productive end. Today, he executed an intelligent, forward-thinking trade:

  • To the Nats: Outfielder Austin Kearns, shortstop Felipe Lopez, and right-hander Ryan Wagner;
  • To the Reds: Relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, pitching prospect Daryl Thompson, infielder Brendan Harris, and shortstop Royce Clayton.
Thank you, Jim Bowden. And thank you, Wayne Krivsky:
"We paid a steep price," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "I'm sure this will be a controversial trade. I know a lot of people will be leaving nasty messages on my voicemail, and I'll have some who think it's great."

Discerning precisely why the Reds made this trade is beyond the scope of this blog; I'll leave that to Church of Baseball and Red Reporter, among others. Certainly, Krivsky needed to shore up his bullpen, and he expressed a desire to improve the up-the-middle defense, which Clayton will seem to do by reputation, if not by on-the-field results. But why this trade? Why deal two out of the main three cogs in his team's lineup (Lopez and Kearns are one-two in at-bats, though Adam Dunn's walks push Kearns to a close third in plate appearances)---including his starting shortstop---for an immediate return of two middle relievers, a middling shortstop, and a ultility infielder who, for all we know, might become as familiar with the International League as he has with the Pacific Coast League?

I don't really know. It seems like an odd trade, a panic trade---unless there's something I'm missing.

However, looking at this from the Nats' point of view, I don't see a downside. To be sure, Bowden has parted with some significant talent, and it would only be honest to acknowledge this. When you deal five players to another team, there's the chance at least one of those five can play.

Gary Majewski

Majewski, as we know by now, is a 26 year-old righthanded reliever who was a key contributor to last year's team and had this season worked his way in, out, in, sort of out, and pretty much back in Frank Robinson's confidence. During the past season-and-a-half, Majewski has been worked very hard. Last season, for instance, he appeared in 79 games and tossed 86 innings---at the major league level. This was after he had already appeared in three games and 6.1 innings for New Orleans prior to being summoned to the Nats' bullpen. This season, Majewski has appeared in 46 games and pitched 55 innings---a pace of approximately 83 appearances and 99 innings.

This workload is, frankly, reminiscent of Luis Ayala.

Please understand I am not predicting injury for Gary Majewski. Yet, his workload is part of the mix, a relevant consideration when we evaluate what the Nationals relinquished. And what they've relinquished is a young, cheap, seemingly durable reliever who has been worked hard and whose unimpressive peripheral numbers (outside of an excellent home run rate) do not resemble his minor league performance and who, at any rate, is a middle reliever.

Simply stated, Majewski was a valuable pitcher for the Nats and may well pan out for the Reds, but a team can be readily willing to part with his type of pitcher.

Bill Bray

Is Bray, the organization's 23 year-old top pick from 2004, a different story than Majewski? I'm not so sure. Workload is hardly a concern; as a matter of fact, Bray's minor league record is rather sparse: six quick appearances after signing in '04, 34 appearances dispersed over three levels last year, and 21 games at New Orleans prior to making his big league debut on June 3. Robinson has definitely thrown Bray into the fire since then, but those are the breaks.

I have trouble getting a read on Bray. His performance upon debuting with the Nats was quite encouraging, and his limited minor league record doesn't seem too troublesome---maybe a propensity to serve up homers, but that looked to be the only real question mark. So what did the Nats give up? A recent No. 1 pick, sure, but what kind of value does a former first-round lefty reliever guarantee above a non-first-round lefty reliever? In other words, how special a property (in the baseball sense) was Bill Bray to the Nats?

I'd say the answer is undeterminable at this point, but let's keep in mind that we're talking about a relief pitcher.

Royce Clayton

Months ago, I drafted a post where I was really going to dump on Clayton. The moment has passed, but I will note that Clayton is the type of player employed by teams who are so bad that they have bigger concerns than punchless, aging shortstops. It's how he's perpetuated his career---latching onto a steady progression of bad teams, year-to-year, somehow retaining regular work despite being a nothing since 1999. I should feel glad that a veteran near the end of his career is receiving at least the opportunity to play some meaningful games down the stretch, but I don't want to be dishonest about it. At any rate, Clayton is completely irrelevant to the future success and failure of the Washington Nationals and as such can be discarded without hesitation as yesterday's news.

Brendan Harris

It is not hard to feel sympathy for Harris, who was acquired by the former general manager, Omar Minaya, did not at all impress Robinson at the end of '04, and then had an off year in the minors during the first season under Bowden's control. Harris is a 'tweener of sorts---a fine enough bat for second but questionable defense, an okay third baseman but lacking true punch there---but he is versatile and would have been miles better than Vinny Castilla's three months of hell during the middle of '05.

By all reports, Harris displayed an impressive attitude during the offseason, was willing to do anything that would raise his stature in the organization's eyes (including play some short in the Arizona Fall League), and played himself into much better graces. Had Ryan Zimmerman not adjusted rapidly to the big leagues, had Jose Vidro not remained healthy, and had Clayton's batting average not surged at precisely the right time, Harris might have found himself with a first real shot in the big leagues. But things didn't fall his way. It's unfortunate, and Harris still could have helped the club, but you don't fret about trading Brendan Harris. Whatever lack of forethought the club exhibited with young players such as (and not limited to) Harris is in the past. What's done is done.

Daryl Thompson

I don't know what to say about Thompson. The word is that he could really turn into something, but what something he'll be---if any something---is incredibly far off. He's pitched 6.2 innings at short-season A-ball so far this year. In his minor league career thus far, he's fanned 6.5 batters per nine innings. Granted, that rate was rising before he was shut down last season, but you'd have to be either mighty fatalistic or booked on a flight to a minor league Jonestown (which I suppose would be fatalistic, too) in order to thrash in anguish over his departure from the organization.

Still, maybe this will come back to haunt the Nats down the road. We can't disregard that possibility. As John Cusack said at the end of City Hall, you have to be willing to be lucky, and at this point Bodes' fingers won't have to be crossed too tightly over Thompson. He won't lose sleep over this part of the deal, and it won't drive him to drink (any more than he already does---cheap shot, I know).

* * * *

And that, my friends, is what the Nats gave up: two relievers (one competent, the other promising), a shortstop near the end of his career, a utility-type guy who's never had a shot, and a pitching prospect who, by a conservative estimate, won't make the big city papers for another four seasons.

So I ask you: Already, without even knowing what the Nats received in return, how concerned could we really be about this trade? It's tough parting with Bray, if only based on the promise a first-rounder implies, but he's a relief pitcher. Last year, the Nats received 88.3 stellar innings from a middle reliever (turned spot-starter!) collected from someone's trash can in Korea. They also received 86 fine innings from someone whose primary claim to fame (at least at this blog) came by virtue of looking like Nicholas Cage's character in Con Air. That's right, Gary Majewski. Put the bunny in the box, indeed! And Majewski was acquired from the White Sox along Jon Rauch, another main reliever for the Nats. Ninety-two appearances and 108.2 innings combined in the team's first 90 games, acquired in the same trade, all for Jurassic Carl Everett.

The point being, if you have to cobble together something on your team, it might as well be the bullpen. Reliable relievers are out there, everywhere, even at New Orleans. You just have to locate them and give them a chance.

Other than Majewski and Bray, you have . . . what? The completely unrealized potential of Daryl Thompson? I'm not saying throw these guys in the dumpster, but it would appear that the Nats have surrended a significant quantity of talent, of low risk in terms of quality.

In return, as noted, the Nats have acquired regular, everyday players. They've dealt two relievers (and an eminently replaceable shortstop, and a guy stuck in Triple-A, and a pitching prospect way, way off) for two guys who play regularly for a playoff contender---two guys who will play right away for the Nats, two guys who are relatively inexpensive, two guys who are now under the Nats' control through the 2008 season. And they've received a former first-round reliever in return.

Austin Kearns

Before I oversell Bowden's return, I'll note that Kearns is no sure thing. His development stalled in 2003, bottomed out in 2004, and begain rehabilitation in 2005. He's restored much of the value he exhibited in his 2002 rookie year, plus a bit more power and minus 40 points of batting average. He's not a star presently, but he's got a bit of star potential; when you destroy High-A ball as a 20 year-old (.306/.415/.558 at Dayton in 2000), people do tend to notice.

Kearns is now 26 and has a tendency with which Nats' fans are unfortunately aware: he has an injury history. But he's an instant upgrade in right field from the presumably soon-to-be-departed Jose Guillen, and he promises a brighter future than Guillen would have. Remember, Guillen turned down a five-year, $50 million contract offer during the winter. By comparison, Kearns is younger, far cheaper, more versatile defensively (he lacks the rocket arm but can fill in center in a pinch), and has on-base skills to match his power, which is comparable to Guillen's. Potentially, he's a better player---and one entering his prime.

Kearns is a risk, especially in terms of his health (and if you dislike strikeouts, avert your eyes). But, given what the Nats relinquished, he's not a bad risk.

Felipe Lopez

One of Bowden's first acts as the GM of the Nats was a colossal screw-up: Bodes offered Cristian Guzman a four-year contract, and Guzman expressed his gratitude by signing that piece of paper with cat-like quickness. Thus far, that has been Guzman's most impressive performance as a Nat. As a matter of fact, he's been more valuable to the Nationals sitting this season out than he was as a player last season. Words are insufficient to express how horrifically Guzman played last season.

Bodes purportedly rectified the mistake by signing Clayton to serve as competition and, subseqently, a replacement for Guzman. It was a lazy, P.T. Bowdenish move. For someone who claimed---once Stan Kasten entered the mix---to be committed to the future of the organization and its player development, Bowden must have taken himself by surprise by making such a pointless signing. It advanced the interests of the organization not one iota---but it protected Bowden's just fine, because really, who's going to find fault for employing Royce Clayton as your shortstop? He's an old pro, and he's hitting .270!

It is with a bizarre stroke of the keys, then, that I praise Jim Bowden---or, alternatively, Wayne Krivsky---for signing Royce Clayton and flipping him as part of a deal for a young shortstop, for a guy who really does advance the organization's interests. I mean, don't tell me Bodes planned this all out---anyone who makes that claim should be, I don't know, decapitated or something. But, looking at the results rather than the process, Bowden helped this team by acquiring Lopez, and Clayton was a part of it.

It's easy to dismiss a Cincy's players offensive stats because of his home ballpark, but Lopez was a legitimate all-star last season. His power has dropped off this season (nine homers and only 14 doubles so far, as opposed to 23 and 34 last season, respectively), but he's improving on some other skills, namely plate discipline (47 walks, only 10 short of last season's career high) and baserunning (23 out of 29 in stolen bases this season). Perhaps Lopez, 26, will consolidate these skills---or perhaps he'll go all Rey Quinones on us. But the Nats are back on track at shortstop, and should Guzman prove untradeable prior to next season (and should Jose Vidro prove tradeable), then it would seem possible Lopez could slide over to the keystone.

There is a question of Lopez's defense at short; it certainly seems erratic, as his current .959 fielding percentage matches his career mark. The Fielding Bible's assessment prior to this season was that Lopez is "average at best." According to that publication, Lopez rated 18th among shorstops in 2005 (Clayton was 22nd; Guzman was 23rd) and 26th in the three-year rankings (Clayton was 24th; Guzman was 28th). The in-depth measures point out a weakness to Lopez's right:

YR  To Right Str. on  To Left
03 -4 -1 -2
04 -9 +2 +2
05 -6 +4 +6

Lopez's defense bears watching, but it seems undeniable to me that his presence on the roster is a substantial gain for the team.

Ryan Wagner

Your guess on Wagner is as good as mine. Wagner was Bowden's final first-rounder in Cincy, he pitched well when he jumped to the bigs shortly after he was drafted, and he's been a disaster ever since. He posted a 6.11 ERA with the Reds last season and is doing worse at Louisville so far this year, primarily because he's easier to hit than Patrick Ramsey in a Spurrier scheme. (Sheesh, that's an outdated reference.) His control hasn't been so hot either, at least at the major league level. He's been okay at keeping the ball in the yard and striking out guys.

I think I saw where Bodes said he knew what was wrong with Wagner mechanically, and that the Nats could fix him. Seeing as Bodes said it, the statement was at least three-fifths bluster, but maybe Wagner just needs a different organization. Like I said, I don't know. But I do know that a former first round pick, two days away from his 24th birthday, is the throw-in headed Natty way.

* * * *

Okay, so where does this leave us? It's a different world here, today, than it was yesterday. This is the first step, it would seem, in collecting and hopefully cultivating talent---in establishing cohesion and order within the organization.

In other words, this trade appears to be evidence of a plan. Perhaps it's not the plan we anticipated; Kearns and Lopez, who would be free agents by 2009 unless they are signed to long-term extensions, may never play with the Chris Marreros and Colten Willemses(eseses) and Stephen Englunds and Smiley Gonzalazes of the future (assuming those guys make it). Maybe this is a sign that the Lernastens won't entirely abdicate short-term competitiveness for the sake of a long-term plan. Or maybe Bowden just saw a good deal and took it.

Make no mistake, though: It's a very good deal. This is the equivalent of acquiring two skill position players for two offensive linemen. People would say that offensive linemen are treasured, as they say that the bullpen is of vital importance. But, given the chance to acquire two skill players for two linemen, you do it. It's the same here.

Of course, there's no assurance of success. Kearns and Lopez could bust, and Wagner could continue being Wagner. Krivsky might have assembled a hard-working and viscious bullpen combo, and Clayton might slap out a .300 average for the rest of the year. Who knows, maybe Daryl Thompson wins 23 games for the Reds in 2014.

But today, quite naturally, is all we have to evaluate today---and this is a July 13 to remember. We dump on Bowden quite a bit, and usually with pretty good reason. But he did well here. Bravo.